1951 Refugee Convention

Under the 1951 UN Convention, a refugee is defined as a person who is outside of his or her country, and unable to be protected by that country ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’. This definition applies to people fleeing conflict and persecution across the world.

Find out which countries refugees are coming from (424.8Kb, PDF)

Read real life stories about people seeking refuge in Scotland

What does being a refugee mean?

The term ‘refugee’ in common usage covers a range of people including those displaced by environmental change and natural disaster. The term is often confused with other types of migrants, but ‘refugee’ has a specific definition in international law.

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (commonly referred to as the Refugee Convention or 1951 Convention) is the key legal document that gives the definition of what a refugee is and sets out the rights of refugees to be protected. The Convention has protected millions of lives since it was introduced.

The Refugee Convention is also the document against which all claims for asylum are assessed. When a person flees to the UK, they must first have their story assessed by the UK Border Agency before being given leave to remain as a refugee. Until that point, they tend to be known as an ‘asylum seeker’.

The 5 elements of this definition

  • Refugees have to be outside of their country of origin
  • The reason why they flee has to be because of the fear of persecution
  • The fear has to be well founded
  • The persecution must be as a result of one or more of the 5 categories in the definition
  • They have to be unable to seek protection or are unwilling to seek protection in their country of origin ie they cannot turn to their own governments for protection

No country has ever withdrawn from its obligations under the UN Convention for the Status of Refugees.

Find out more about the Convention on the UNHCR website